Just Another Guy with Opinions

Gangs in the Military

Posted by shadmia on August 9, 2007


Most of us think of street gangs as a fairly recent phenomenon in American culture, concentrated in big cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. We also consider gang members to be either Black or Hispanic and to a lesser degree, Asian. With names that carry ominous connotations like the Crips and the Bloods, they are the scourge of urban life; born out of poverty, nurtured by drugs and violence, dealing in death and destruction. However the history of gangs in America goes back to the 19th century.

History of Gangs

The urbanization that accompanied the Industrial Revolution gave rise to the modern street gang. New York City was the epicenter of gang activity in America in the 19th century. Poor sections of the city, such as the Five Points, provided a fertile ground for gangs with strong ethnic identities, usually Irish. Gangs based on Polish, Italian or other ethnicities were also common. The Forty Thieves, Shirt Tails and Plug Uglies fought over territory, robbed and mugged people and sometimes united to fight against gangs from other areas of the city, such as the waterfront and the Bowery district.

Gang activity gradually increased in the 20th century. Through the 1950s and 60s, most gangs were in large cities, although nearby towns and suburbs might have hosted offshoot gangs if they were connected via major highways.

In 1957Gang-defendants.jpgmichael-farmer.jpg, in Washington Heights, a New York city neighborhood, 15 year-old Michael Farmer, thought to be a member of a white gang called the Jesters was kicked, punched and stabbed multiple times by Black and Puerto Rican members of two gangs — the Egyptian Kings and the Dragons. Michael Farmer died as a result of the beating he received. The brutality of the killing and subsequent trial, stunned New Yorkers; and as if to accentuate the gang problem in the city, the musical The West Side Story (originally named The East Side Story) had its debut performance very shortly after this incident. Read the entire story here.

In the 1970s and 1980s illegal drugs and drug use became much more prevalent. Many gangs became involved in the drug trade as a source of income. The widespread availability of guns on the black market enabled them to protect their “turf”, usually in poverty stricken areas, by resorting to violence and intimidation. The ethnic composition of gangs also began to change, eventually becoming predominately Hispanic or Black.

Today gang violence is a problem in every major city in the United States and membership is on the rise. According to the Department of Justice’s 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment, there are at least 21,500 gangs and more than 731,000 active gang members. While gangs are less prevalent in rural areas, in major cities, gang violence is responsible for roughly half of all homicides. Gangs are also becoming more savvy, using computers and other technology to commit crimes.

Why Join a Gang?

According to the Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report 49 percent of gang members were Hispanic, 37 percent were Black, 8 percent White, 5 percent Asian and 1 percent had another ethnicity. There are many possible reasons for someone to join a gang, but four primary reasons seem to describe most gang members:

  1. Poverty
    Many gangs exist mainly as a moneymaking enterprise. By committing thefts and dealing drugs, gang members can make relatively large amounts of money. This partly explains why gangs exist in poor, rundown areas of cities. However, not everyone who is poor joins a gang, and not every gang member is poor.
  2. Peer Pressure
    Gang members tend to be young. This is partly because gangs intentionally recruit teenagers, but it’s also because young people are very susceptible to peer pressure. If they live in a gang-dominated area, or go to a school with a strong gang presence, they might find that many of their friends are joining gangs. Peer pressure is a driving force behind gang membership in affluent areas.
  3. Boredom
    With nothing else to occupy their time, youths sometimes turn to mischief to entertain themselves. If gangs are already present in the neighborhood, that can provide an outlet. Alternatively, teenagers might form their own gangs. This is why many communities have tried to combat gangs by simply giving kids something to do. Dances, sports tournaments and other youth outreach programs can literally keep kids off the streets.
  4. Despair
    If poverty is a condition, despair is a state of mind. A neighborhood gang can seem like the only real family they’ll ever have. Joining a gang gives them a sense of belonging and being a part of something important that they can’t get otherwise. In some cases, parents approve of their children joining gangs, and may have been a member of the same gang in the past.

Drug use is an underlying factor in all of these reasons. Not only does the sale of illegal drugs drive the profits of street gangs, they also create many of the conditions that lead to gang membership. Generally speaking, gangs, as we see them today, were formed for the most part in the Chicago area or areas of California, primarily, Southern California. Many of the hundreds of copy-cat gangs that have formed throughout the United States are based on the Chicago and California gangs.

Gang Roots


In Chicago there are two main gang alliances: The People Nation (founder Jeff Fort) and The Folk Nation (founder David Barksdale). Most gangs will affiliate with one or the other. For an in depth analysis of the Chicago-based gangs click here.

See Part 2 of the video above Here

In California the two major gang factions are the Crips and the Bloods based in Los Angeles. Hispanic factions also formed: the Sureños, representing Southern California gangs and the Norteños, representing Northern California. The MS 13 from El Salvador is a particularly brutal gang (see video below). The Stoner Gangs are a recent development and are generally multi-racial and non-territorial. See the links above for more information on each faction.

On the East Coast two recently formed Hispanic alliances have now appeared on the scene; La Gran Raza (The Great Race) and La Gran Familia (The Great Family.)

In addition to street gangs there are also Prison Gangs. These are gangs that were formed to protect their own members in the prison system.

Gangs in the Military

In the most recent development it appears as if gangs have found a new environment in which to grow and thrive……The US military. With the war in Iraq taking its toll in bodies and declining enrollment, the military has lowered its standards for new recruits and has begun to accept applicants with criminal backgrounds. This has opened the door to many who would in the past have been automatically disqualified. The following video is from an investigative report on gangs in the military:

CBS also did a story on U.S. Army Sgt. Juwan Johnson who was killed in a gang initiation ceremony in Germany, just months before his son was born. Read the story and watch the video here.

One of the country’s leading gang experts says gangs around the country are sending their members to the military to learn urban warfare. Richard Valdemar, a 30-year-veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, travels the country lecturing and teaching police about military-trained gang members. Valdemar and other gang experts say gangs are encouraging members to join the military for training and access to weapons. The military’s current emphasis on urban warfare plays into the street-fighting mentality of gangs, experts say:

“When individuals go into the military, they are taught how to use weapons, defensive tactics, and the use of a lot of sophisticated techniques,” said LaRae Quy, of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “They take that back on the streets with them. This is a legitimate concern for law enforcement.”

For more videos clips about gangs click here



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